BY: JENNIFER SHUTT – Ohio Capital Journal

Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown speaks at a press conference on legislation to provide health care for veterans exposed to burn pits on June 7, 2022. Susan Weber Zeier of Sandusky is on the far right of the photo. Photo by Jennifer Shutt, States Newsroom.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan bill Wednesday to expand health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits overseas, sending the package back to the U.S. Senate after making a minor change.

Senators, who broadly support the landmark package led by Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, are expected to quickly clear the measure for President Joe Biden’s signature. The House vote was 342-88.

Biden, who has linked his son Beau’s death from a brain tumor in 2015 to exposure to burn pits, has repeatedly called on Congress to address the illnesses and deaths linked to toxic exposure.

“What I found with my son, what I found with my friends, what I found with the generation of Vietnam: There’s this notion that you shouldn’t ask for anything,” Biden said in March while at a resource center in Fort Worth, Texas.

“You should be asking. You should be letting us know. You should let us know what is bothering you, what is the problem, because we owe it to you,” Biden continued.

Delayed by dispute

The Senate approved the legislation last month following an 84-14 vote, but House approval was delayed while members of the Veterans’ Affairs Committees worked out a dispute over a provision designed to boost staff in rural areas.

The language would have allowed the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department to buy certain health care providers out of their contracts if they took offers to work for at least four years at “rural or highly rural facilities.” The provision also said that the money for the buyouts “shall not be considered a taxable benefit or event for the covered health care professional.”

Lawmakers on the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee cited a so-called blue slip issue, since a tax provision cannot originate in the Senate.

After substantial back-and-forth about how to fix the problem, the House Rules Committee opted to remove the provision this week, before sending a new, slightly altered bill to the floor.

Bipartisan acclaim

House debate on the legislation Wednesday was broadly bipartisan, with the vast majority of lawmakers speaking in support of the package.

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, an Iowa Republican, said she has “seen firsthand the effects that toxic exposure has had” on her fellow service members following her 24-year military career.

“Exposure to these substances can lead to severe, life-altering disease,” Miller-Meeks said.

“However, under the current system at the VA it can be extraordinarily costly, time-consuming and in some cases impossible for a sick or disabled veteran to prove that their condition is related to the toxins to which they were exposed during their military service.”

The bill the House passed Wednesday, she said, would help to end that by requiring the VA to deliver health care and benefits to veterans exposed to toxins “in a responsible, fair way.”

Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Marine Corps infantryman who deployed to Iraq in 2005, said the legislation was overdue and desperately needed.

“Too many veterans live in fear that their next doctor’s appointment will reveal an illness that in addition to harming their health could drive them into bankruptcy because the VA refuses to care for them,” Gallego said. “I am one of those people that does have that fear.”

The legislation, named for deceased Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson of the Ohio National Guard, would expand eligibility for VA health care to more than 3.5 million veterans exposed to burn pits since 9/11.

It would add 23 illnesses to the list of toxic-exposure-related ailments presumed to be connected to military service, ending the need for veterans with those conditions to try to prove to the VA their illnesses were linked to their deployments.

The package would direct more resources to VA health care centers, employees and claims processing as well as federal research on toxic exposure.

The measure would also expand presumptions for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical the U.S. military used during the Vietnam War. American Samoa, Cambodia, Guam, Johnston Atoll, Laos and Thailand would all be added to the list of locations where veterans are presumed to have been exposed to the chemical.

JENNIFER SHUTT covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.

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